Soul Count

Eduardo Paolozzi's statue of Sir Isaac Newton at the British Library in London

Eduardo Paolozzi's statue of Sir Isaac Newton at the British Library in London

I recently reviewed The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes in C&EN. Here is an excerpt from the review about a fascinating moment in one of Holmes' footnotes: “England also supplies the author with his metaphor—romanticism, the echo of which still rings loudly today, welcome or not. Holmes notes a conference entitled "The Idea of Creativity in Science and the Humanities" at the Royal Society in November 2000, at which Coleridge's assertion that "the souls of 500 Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or Milton" elicited the following outburst from an unnamed scientist: "That is complete and utter balls. ... We don't have to put up with such rubbish." Feathers were smoothed, Holmes notes, when it was suggested that Coleridge was only making a mathematical joke on the impossibility of computing the content of souls.” Among the feathered creatures in the room were Richard Dawkins and Ian McEwan.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, aged twenty-two by Pieter van Dyke

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, aged twenty-two by Pieter van Dyke

Coleridge, of course, was making no such joke. Here is the quote in context [the first bracketed part is from memory, filling in an ellipsis].       “My Opinion is this—that deep Thinking is attainable only by a man of deep Feeling, and that all Truth is a species of Revelation. The more I understand of Sir Isaac Newton's works, the more boldly I dare utter to my own mind [, and thus yours,] that I believe the Souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakspere [sic] or a Milton... Mind in his [Newton’s] system is always passive—a lazy Looker-on on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if it be indeed made in God's Image, & that too in the sublimest sense—the image of the Creator—there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system.”~Letter to Thomas Poole, 23 March 1801   Ah, but wasn’t it Coleridge who also said:   “All Science is necessarily prophetic, so truly so, that the power of prophecy is the test, the infallible criterion, by which any presumed Science is ascertained to be actually & verily science. The Ptolemaic Astronomy was barely able to prognosticate a lunar eclipse; with Kepler and Newton came Science and Prophecy.”~On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830). ?  I love the idea of reconciling these thoughts. And the book is tremendous, explicating what Coleridge (a chemistry enthusiast, as it turns out) called the "second scientific revolution". Skip my review and read the book, which has excellent footnotes. RM

Author: Rick Mullin

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  1. It occurs to me that greatness is achieved in science as it is in the arts by reverent renegades. By people with vision who are skilled at the craft, mindful of the tradition, humbled before nature, and disdainful of formulae. At this level, art and science share everything.